Police Motorcycle Unit has more than a century of service to the community.
The 108th riding season of the Erie Bureau of Police Motorcycle Unit started off a bit behind schedule.
Lingering wintry weather kept the unit’s Harley-Davidson motorcycles in storage for a little longer than expected, and the need to fill an opening on the eight-officer unit postponed the members’ annual certification that had been scheduled for this week.
But the group took the delays in stride. The seven current members stayed in their four-wheeled patrol vehicles for a few more weeks before finally hopping aboard their bikes on Saturday morning, when they worked a special detail to provide traffic control for a 5K run on the city’s west side.
From now through November, weather cooperating, free weekends will be rare, long days will be frequent and traffic law violators will be targets for the members of one of a handful of police motorcycle units still in existence in Pennsylvania, and one of the oldest in the country.
“Our biggest thing is traffic enforcement, then special events,” said Lt. Pat Durkin, a 20-year member of the unit who serves as its commander. “All runs, walks, CelebrateErie, Roar on the Shore, anything they can’t take from regular patrol units, they take us and use us that way. The only difference is in the summer, from April to November, we ride motorcycles.”
Durkin, a 27-year member of the Erie Bureau of Police, is the longest-serving member of the Motorcycle Unit, but not by much. Another member is entering his 17th year on a bike, two more have 16 years on the unit, one has nine years behind the handlebars and another seven years. Patrolman Adam Michali, the unit’s newest member, is entering his second year on the unit.
The unit is the city police bureau’s traffic enforcement arm, Chief Dan Spizarny said. The motorcycle officers work speed-enforcement details and school zones, and they handle traffic-control duties at crash scenes. The unit also works all of the city’s special events, from festivals and parades to escorts for visiting dignitaries.
“They are denied vacations, switch days off, come in and work 12-hour days for the big events,” Spizarny said.
The unit has undergone a number of changes in its more than century of service.
Erie police motorcycle patrols started in June 1910 — two years after Harley-Davison, the maker of the only motorcycles the unit has ever used, first started making police motorcycles, 17-year member Patrolman Scott Kornetz noted. The first motorcycle was rented so city officials could test its effectiveness in enforcing traffic laws, according to history researched by members of the unit. More bikes were soon added, and within a few years, Erie had its own motorcycle patrol fleet.
The unit, which Kornetz said used to ride year-round, grew to 20 officers at one point. It was down to 13 members when, because of budget cuts in 2005 and 2006, 10 members of the unit were sent back to patrol. The unit dropped to four officers before increasing to its complement of eight under former Police Chief Steve Franklin, Durkin said.
Another recent change to the unit occurred in November 2016, when it moved from five-day to seven-day coverage. Instead of having all of its members off on the same day, members of the unit now work a daily schedule, with four officers on each day, Durkin said.
Members of the Motorcycle Unit must have at least 30 months of experience before they are eligible to apply for the unit. Officers selected for it don’t need motorcycle-riding experience but will undergo 120 hours of training under Durkin, a certified instructor, before they are put on the street. The new member will then spend several weeks patrolling with another member, Durkin said.
“Sometimes it’s better to get guys on who don’t have a lot of riding experience because Pat’s a good trainer, he’s an excellent rider, so he can train somebody from the ground up without having a lot of bad habits that you have to break,” said Patrolman Rob Wierbinski, a 16-year member of the unit.
Most of the members said they were drawn to the unit to ride motorcycles, and because of an interest in doing traffic enforcement.
“I like doing traffic, and it’s something that is important,” said Patrolman Damyan Graves, who served the unit for a year in the mid-2000s before returning to the unit in 2012. “I’m doing what I can to make (the city) safer.”
Members also note that the unit is a “preferred assignment,” where they work strictly day shifts, outside of special events, and aren’t on rotating shifts like patrol officers.
“It’s a promotion within a specialized unit,” Kornetz said. “I enjoy riding, and it’s a spit-and-polish unit that’s considered an elite unit. There’s a sense of pride in the unit and its history.”
Patrolman Jason Weismiller, who served on the unit for several years in the early 2000s and returned in 2013, said he enjoys the responsibility of having an assigned motorcycle, which members are in charge of caring for and cleaning.
Patrolman Tom Dunmire, who is also entering his 16th year as a motorcycle officer, said he was drawn to the unit because of the tightness of the group.
“When I was a younger officer there were a lot of cool guys on the unit then. It was the mystique of the motorcycle, the tightness of it,” he said. “At one time the unit was really tight, really solid. Just the desire to be a part of something a little bigger, a specialized unit.”
“What drew me here was the permanent shifts,” Wierbinski said. “And it gave me the opportunity to still have a lot of contact with the public, which I enjoy. It’s an opportunity to deal with more people on a one-to-one basis.”
The challenges of the job, its members say, include riding in adverse weather conditions, working long hours and weekends during the summer months, and worrying about the actions of other motorists.
“You’re constantly looking for the person who is going to run you over,” Durkin said. “You’re looking for the bad guy, you’re looking for the violator …”
“The little kid that is going to run out in front of you, the dog that’s going to run out in front of you, potholes,” Dunmire added.
Among the greatest benefit to being on the unit is the greater accessibility to the public, said Detective Gary Taccone, whose recent move to another position in the police bureau led to the current opening on the motorcycle unit. Durkin said he receives letters each summer from people who write to thank members of the unit for going above and beyond to help them out in different situations.
“You are much more approachable, and the bike will draw people in,” Dunmire said. “We’re fortunate in that regard because we have the opportunity to be ambassadors. As corny as that sounds, it’s important to have that good public image.”
Tim Hahn can be reached at 870-1731 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNhahn.